A Rogue Mariner on the Upper Thames

Roger Barnes describes himself as an architect, writer and artist. But, while he promises to get around to an architectural video someday, he fills his YouTube channel with advise on sailing and camping in a small dinghy. As one of the commenters sums it up, “The more stuff you have in your boat, the less room there is for fun.” Sounds like good, general life advice.

I Canceled the New York Times

This morning I came to the conclusion that I needed something better to do than spend a significant part of every morning hate-reading the New York Times. As if last week’s condescending coverage of the Sanders campaign’s Climate Crisis Summit wasn’t enough reason to cancel our subscription, the Gray Lady followed up last Friday with an opinion piece disguised as “objective” campaign coverage telling us unrealistic hippies that we should just give up on doing anything about climate change, “moderate” ourselves and keep shopping for Hermès bags.

Let’s take a closer look at the article starting with the headline. Newspapers have to make money on the internet and to do so they often change the paper copy headline to make it sexier online. In the paper copy, the story is headlined, “Sander’s Climate Goals Thrill Young Voters, but Experts Have Doubts.” Online the article is headlined, “Sanders’s Climate Ambitions Thrill Supporters. Experts Aren’t Impressed.” I suspect the changes in the headline were meant, in the online version, to be ever so slightly less off-putting to younger and, presumably, more left-leaning readers. The stodgy headline in the paper version more accurately reflects the, “You kids get off my lawn” tone of the article.

The headline change demonstrates that climate coverage is a tough sell in terms of selling online ads which partly explains why the most important story of our time gets so little coverage in the mainstream media. Climate change is a complex problem that eludes simple technical answers on top of being just plain depressing. If you want ad click-throughs you’re better off covering the daily WWF reality show provided by our Twitterer-in-chief.

Speaking of said Twitterer, the lede begins with a false equivalence between Bernie Sanders and President Trump,

Senator Bernie Sanders’s $16 trillion vision for arresting global warming would put the government in charge of the power sector and promise that, by 2030, the country’s electricity and transportation systems would run entirely on wind, solar, hydropower or geothermal energy, with the fossil fuel industry footing much of the bill much as Mexico was to pay for the border wall.

Keep in mind that this astonishingly biased article was written by one of the Times’s primary climate change reporters, Lisa Friedman. The article continues,

Climate scientists and energy economists say the plan is technically impractical, politically unfeasible, and possibly ineffective.

What climate scientists and energy economists? The ones quoted later on in the article? We never find out.

The first named “expert” we hear from is David Victor, an advisor to Pete Buttigieg, who centristsplains us naive kids,

“The progressive wing wants radical change, and climate change is one of those areas where this has really been the most palpable,” he said. “The Sanders plan claims to deliver radical change, but it can’t work in the real world.”

If Victor were to have advised Martin Luther King, his most famous speech might have gone something like this, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character . . . buuuuuut we just have to be realistic. It’s a nice dream but it can’t work in the real world. Just be thankful for what you’ve got.”

This, in the end, is the gist of the rest of this article and typical of the New York Times, which hides its wealthy center-right biases behind a veneer of alleged objectivity and “facts.” Look at the luxury goods advertised in the Style and Food sections and you’ll see the real constituency of this paper and why the reality of climate change is just too scary to report. If anything, Sanders’s plan doesn’t go far enough. Heaven forbid that we might actually all have to start a conversation about relinquishing the keys of our SUVs and our airline tickets so our children don’t drown in rising tides or burn up in apocalyptic fires.

I find myself longing for 19th century newspapers that were honest about their biases. Remember that Karl Marx used to write a column for the New York Times’s chief competitor the New-York Daily Tribune. That these old papers used to also cover Mars canals and underground lizard people points to a playfulness and a greater respect for readers who knew these stories were made up and who had no illusions about the objectivity of newspaper writing. Of course many things can be known through the tools of science and specialized expertise, but most aspects of what it means to be human, such as political speech, can’t be reduced to fact-checkable nuggets. As a writer I think one can make an attempt at being fair (to “corral the truth” as Mark Twain put it) but true objectivity is impossible and to pretend otherwise is to exclude the possibility of revolutionary change of the sort we’ll have to take in this climate crisis.

We know many objective facts about climate change: that it’s real, that’s it’s caused by human activity and that if we don’t do something radical now we’re looking at an even more dystopian world for future generations. But we’re also going to have to set lofty, seemingly impossible goals and dream of a different future. As King put, speaking of the hard fight for civil rights, we’re going to have, “to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” We’re not going to make any progress on climate change being sensible, practical and “realistic.” Goodbye New York Times. I canceled our subscription and donated the money I would have spent on a campaign contribution to Bernie Sanders.

The Twittering Machine

I’m in the middle of reading Richard Seymour’s dystopian account of the glowing screens we’re all yoked to, The Twittering Machine (Amazon, Library), and I want to find the escape hatch in the Spectacle. Seymour notes that we are in an age in which we are all writing more than we ever did, in the form of posts, texts etc. But he asks are we “more being written than writing?” The book leaves me wanting to disappear into my wood shop to commune with a carefully curated set of had tools for the rest of my days on this earth. I’ve embedded an interview with Seymour on the appropriately named This is Hell podcast.

Steady

My gappy first attempt at a hand-cut blind dovetail. I’ve got a lot of practice to do!

I spent the past weekend taking a magnificent class with woodworker Chris Gochnour. In addition to being a master of his craft he’s also a talented teacher with many years of experience. Now, this is not a woodworking blog because I’m soooooo not qualified to opinionate on the subject. But I would like to share two things Chris taught that I think apply to any worthwhile task.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson of the class was getting a sense of how to pace work. Sometime in the late afternoon of the first day there was a building crescendo of aggressive pounding and sawing and I think Chris could sense that we were all getting a little too frenetic in our actions. He stopped us and said, “steady, work steady.” He explained that we should not work so slow as to be inefficient but that we shouldn’t rush either. That “steady” pace will, of course, be different depending on if you’re a beginner, such as myself, or further along on the learning curve. I found myself through the rest of the weekend, when I found myself rushing, hearing Chris’s voice in my head saying, “steady.”

The other thing he said that stuck with me is that you, “don’t learn to play the violin in one day.” Skills take practice. I’m familiar with this from studying music and yet I forget that the other needed skills in my life need to be built slowly over time. In music, you have to set aside some time every day to practice your scales.

But where to find the time? Lately I feel like I’ve been paying too much attention to the news. While I think it’s important to know something about what’s going on, I don’t think that I need to follow the day to day drama. What if I devoted the time I spend reading the newspaper to practicing cutting dovetails by hand? What if, instead of falling into the daily political reality show, we practiced sewing, or drawing or learning a language or playing musical instrument? We could probably catch up with the important news in just an hour every week.

While not eschewing power tools, Chris ended the class with a moving plea to consider the more “steady” pace of working with hand tools. “Steady” is not the same as “slow.” “Steady” implies a skillfulness that comes with practice and focus. “Steady” is counter-cultural, at odds with the always distracted ethos of our cheap, plastic, ugly, restless and isolated Empire. So, my brothers and sisters, steady.

Digital Götterdämmerung

I approach most productivity books with wariness. Most of the authors of these tomes, I suspect, report directly to creepy old Wotan and just want to make us feel better about all the hours we spend chained to our digital workstations. I’m especially distrustful of prophets who claim to have a cure for digital addiction.

Typically, when the mainstream media does a story on why we’re all glued to our iPhones, it will begin with the reporter spending an hour in a M.R.I. machine while scrolling through their Facebook feed. The conclusion? By golly, various parts of the brain light up in response to pictures of babies and rants about our reptilian overlords! It’s all in the brain and there’s not much we can do about that so move along and never mind. What seemed to have eluded these incredulous reporters, until recently, is that there’s a whole bunch of oligarchs up in Valhalla exploiting our biologically based addictions so that they can make a buck and sell our information to . . . who knows?

While I patiently await the coming oligarch Götterdämmerung–spoiler: Brunhilde burns down Valhalla–until that glorious day we’re all left with a practical problem: we just can’t seem to stop looking at our phones.

Cal Newport has some suggestions while we wait around in front of Apple headquarters for the right moment to get the torches lit. The cornerstone of his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (Amazon, library) is the suggestion to take a one month break from addictive apps, websites and other digital media. Use that time to figure out some life goals. At the end of the month carefully add back the digital tools you find useful.

I just started the one month digital fast and, already, I feel like I’m regaining a long lost pre-internet memory of when I used to read more, learn new skills and get stuff done.

Newport is flexible about what you abstain from during the one month period. He acknowledges that many people have jobs that require them to use social media so you have to write your own rules. In my case I gave up Facebook over a year ago but I’ve found myself spending way too much time looking at things like Twitter, NextDoor (which has turned into 8chan for grumpy old home owners), YouTube and a random assortment of click-baity websites. And I’ve spent way too much time randomly googling trivia (whatever happened to Sheila E?). So my rules for this month banish all the aforementioned websites and random Googling. I’m allowing myself to look only at Fine Woodworking, Lost Art Press and write this blog. The rest of my time I’m building furniture, practicing drawing and reading.

While the digital de-clutter forms the centerpiece of Newport’s strategy he has a lot of other common sense suggestions:

  • Consider experimenting with periods when you leave your phone at home. Even though I was a late adapter even to having a flip phone, it’s hard for me to remember all the time I used to have away from a mobile phone.
  • Delete social media from your phone. If you have to use it for a job log in only on a desktop computer or laptop but not on your phone.
  • Dumb down your smart phone by removing all addictive apps.
  • Use an app like Freedom to block additive services.
  • Take long walks.
  • Don’t click the like button (i.e. don’t fall into the cheap tricks the Silicon Valley reptilians set for us).
  • Consolidate texting by turning on the do not disturb function of your smart phone for set periods in a day. Then deal with those texts all at once.
  • Take up a high quality hobby. Newport actually mentions woodworking and I can vouch for the usefulness of this particular skill. But your hobby could also be something like sewing, welding, cooking, gardening, volunteering or learning a musical instrument.
  • Reclaim conversation by shutting off the phone.
  • Join something and be a part of a face to face group.
  • Take up a sport.

Newport contends that at the end of the month long digital fast you’ll find that services you looked at compulsively will lose their charm. This has already happened to me with Instagram. I took a long break this year and when I peeked at it recently I was horrified by what I saw which included privacy invading pictures of children in hospital rooms and an image of a distant acquaintance pole dancing that I can’t un-see. Newport says that “Online interactions all have an exhausting element of performance” where we end up at a “point where the line between real and performed is blurring.” I can feel how these services feed my own desire to perform rather than just be me. It’s a relief not to have to constantly preen and “peacock” for the camera.

Unlike me, Newport isn’t a Luddite. If you are one of those unfortunate souls who have to use social media for a job, Newport contends that most people can get what they need out of a social media service in as little as a half hour or 45 minutes a week of focused use.

My research on digital minimalism has revealed the existence of a loosely organized attention resistance movement, made up of individuals who combine high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures to conduct surgical strikes on popular attention economy services–dropping in to extract value, and then slipping away before the attention traps set buy these companies can spring shut.

He’s also realistic that we might all need to carve out some time for low-quality web surfing but that this time needs to be contained rather than sprinkled throughout the day.

During the one month fast Newport suggests developing a long term plan with what to do with our spare hours. In addition to my quixotic furniture building mission I’ve vowed to improve my drawing skills and finish reading a few long books on my literary bucket list. I’ve already feel like I’ve reclaimed, for the first time since the appearance of the accursed interwebs and the un-smart smart phone, a greater focus and attentiveness.